Proposal for UN Counterterrorism Coordinator Misses the Mark

Government officials and leaders of religious and minority communities view a video aimed at preventing violent extremism. Roxbury College, Boston, United States, March 31, 2015. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

A United Nations General Assembly debate this week considered a long-overdue proposal to establish a UN coordinator for counterterrorism and preventing violent extremism. The event was opened by new Secretary-General António Guterres, who has placed the coordination of UN counterterrorism efforts, and an overall focus on prevention of conflict, among his priorities. Together with other colleagues, we have written several reports over the last decade calling for just such a coordinator, most recently in the Blue Sky III Report. Yet the UN proposal as it currently stands focuses too much on traditional counterterrorism, at the expense of the methodologies of PVE.

As per a February 3 letter to member states and observers, the president of the General Assembly, Peter Thomson, proposes to create an office of counterterrorism (OCT) headed by a new under-secretary-general. Our overarching concern is that this new position, if implemented according to the president’s proposal, might do more harm than good.

While we welcome the effort to better coordinate the UN’s counterterrorism actions, the current proposal mentions PVE only at the end of a list of other priorities. It thus creates the impression that the UN has not evolved according to the research and practical experience that has been amassed over the past 15 years around PVE and its close colleague, countering violent extremism. This problem may be further exacerbated if the position goes to an appointee from a nation with a track record of policies that are inconsistent with the values outlined in the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2006 and former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s PVE Plan of Action from last year. This would include a low level of respect for fundamental human rights and cooperation with civil society actors and communities.

The responsibilities for the new under-secretary-general should reflect more balance and emphasis across all four pillars of the UN’s 2006 Global Strategy and be mindful of the strategic message they send. They need to reflect and promote a whole-of-society approach to countering terrorism and extremism and draw on the expertise of the UN on a wide variety of issues, including development and education.

There is also no mention of civil society within the new proposal. This is at odds with the need outlined in the Global Strategy and PVE Plan of Action, which devotes at least 20 of its 70 recommendations to related issues such as engaging communities, empowering youth, and enhancing the role of women. To remedy this problem, one key qualification for an applicant for the new position should be that she or he has experience in both development and security, as well as demonstrated ability to work inclusively and cooperate effectively with a range of stakeholders, including civil society actors.

Furthermore, many of the responsibilities of the proposed new role duplicate what the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) is already doing. The proposal notes that the new under-secretary-general would report through the General Assembly to the secretary-general, whereas CTED would continue to report its sensitive analyses to the Security Council. But there are other ways to protect the sensitive information without such a confusing hydra-headed arrangement. For example, CTED can provide confidential information to the Council while reporting to the under-secretary-general as its line manager.

The two stated aims of the new position are to coordinate the Global Strategy, which would include taking on work CTED is already doing, and advise the secretary-general. Reinforcing silos between CTED and the rest of the UN’s counterterrorism efforts will detract from the new under-secretary-general’s ability to serve either of those two functions effectively. While CTED should be allowed to report its findings specific to Security Council Resolution 1373 (which calls on all UN member states to criminalize the financing and support for terrorist groups) to the Council as stipulated, the new position should have responsibility to coordinate and lead across the full UN counterterrorism and PVE architecture.

A further omission is that there is no mention of the responsibility to measure and assess impact of these counterterrorism and PVE efforts. Part of the OCT’s job should be to ensure that there is more effective monitoring and evaluation built into the design, implementation, and follow-up related to each phase of all related UN programming and project activities. UN entities and member states often mention the significance of impact and the need to measure progress; it is important that they lead by example. This issue could be addressed by adding impact measurement to the responsibilities of the under-secretary-general and the OCT, and charging her or him with developing a framework for including monitoring and evaluation into all aspects of relevant programming and project design, implementation, and follow-up.

There is also currently no explicit connection to the UN’s important presence in the field. The new coordinator should be tasked with creating a more efficient method of engaging with crucial actors on the ground, such as the UN Development Programme, who should continue to take the lead in the field, while more effectively feeding information to the OCT to allow for a better coordinated and better communicated effort by the whole of the UN. Therefore, it is important that the under-secretary-general’s mandate includes explicit language on connecting the UN’s work from headquarters to the field, so that local knowledge better informs the work being undertaken and there is more coherence to the wider counterterrorism and PVE effort.

Finally, in addition to its internal coordinating role, the new under-secretary-general and OCT should also make sure that they more clearly communicate the UN’s focus and activities in these areas to external stakeholders, in order to avoid duplication, create synergy, and enhance practical cooperation with other multilateral organizations, international fora, and non-governmental actors. This means more than just representing the UN and establishing a UN counterterrorism brand, as currently stipulated; it requires active liaising and communicating with external partners. It is therefore important to ensure that the responsibilities include not just an inward- but also an outward-looking coordination and communication role, to maximize impact.

In short, while we are encouraged that concrete steps are finally being taken to address the UN’s counterterrorism and PVE coordination challenges and enhance its effectiveness, the current proposal misses the mark on several key fronts and might lead to settling for something that is not fully fit for purpose.

Alistair Millar is Founder and Executive Director and Eelco Kessels is Managing Director of the Global Center on Cooperative Security.